Christmas trees are decorated, but the focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene. Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City possesses a presepio from Naples that contains figurines carved from wood and dressed in garments of satin, along with 30 gold-trimmed angels of the Magi, all framed by majestic columns.
No Time At All The Italian language is rich in expressions and idioms, and Christmas time is no different. For example, durare da Natale a Santo Stefano means to last from Christmas to St. Stephen's Day (December 26), i.e., no time at all.
- il Natale — Christmas
- Babbo Natale — Santa Claus
- Buon Natale — Merry Christmas
- il regalo di Natale — Christmas present
- la vigilia di Natale — Christmas Eve
- l'albero di Natale — Christmas tree
- il canto di Natale — Christmas carol
- il biglietto d'auguri — Christmas card
- il presepio — nativity, creche
- Gesù Bambino —the Christ Child or Infant Jesus
- la festa di Santo Stefano — Saint Stephen's Day
- il Capodanno — New Year's Day
- gli auguri di Capodanno — New Year's greeting
- la Befana — kindly old witch who brings children toys on Twelfth Night
- la festa dell'Epifania — Epiphany
- i Re Magi — the Magi, or the Three Kings or Wise Men
Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents. According to Italian legend, Three Wise Men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana was asked to join them but declined three times. It took an unusually bright light and a band of angels to convince La Befana that she must join the Wise Men, but she was too late. She never found the Christ child and has been searching ever since. On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy. Just as children in America leave milk and cookies for jolly Santa Claus, La Befana collects messages and refreshments throughout the night.
- Instead of sidewalk Santas and Christmas trees, visitors to Rome should keep an eye out for zampognari and pifferai, Abruzzese shepherd pipers who have been coming to town each December since time immemorial, and for presepi, elaborate nativity scenes on view all over town.
- Rosemary Torigian's personal road map shows you how to tell it's Christmas in Italy.
- If you're traveling to Italy over the holidays, don't leave home without this shopping list of special Christmas markets.
- We asked some of our friends to share their favorite personal memoriesof the Christmas-New Year's season in Italy.
- Although Sims Brannon is not of Italian descent, this mouth-watering recipe for Christmas biscotticomes straight from his childhood in Tennessee.
- Here's a guide to many special eventsthat recur each year all over the country.
- Sor Giovanni, a bona fide guardian angel from Rome, taught our editor how to celebrate New Year's Evein Italy.
- Here's your chance to participate in the re-enactment of the very first Christmas Eve pageantever held.
- Even though Christmas trees are not very Italian, did you know Italy has the tallest Christmas tree in the World?
- Practically every little town in Italy has some sort of colorful festivityfor Christmas and Epiphany. Here's a list you'll want to keep for future trips.
- Here's an interesting siteabout Christmas nativity scenes (mostly in Italian).
- Italian merchants are not as “sale-prone” as their American counterparts, but prices plummet in January (generally right after Epiphany, but sometimes as early as December 26), the best time of year for sales in Italy.
- Wherever you are in Italy on Christmas eve, go to Midnight Mass. Even if it's a tiny parish church, there'll be a presepio, hearty singing, lots of ceremonial splendor, and the profuse candlelight may offer your only chance to see the dark interior of many churches.
An Italian Christmas Buon Natale! Felice Anno Nuovo! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
Christmas Presents - Regali di Natale
Most Italians open their presents on Christmas Day morning or after lunch, although some wait until Epiphany, l'epifania, on January 6th. It's traditional for children to receive a stocking, la calza, colourful, long socks full of sweets, i dolciumi, if they’ve been good, but they’re filled with coal, il carbone, which is made of black sugar, if they’ve been bad.
Traditionally, it's not Santa Claus but the kind witch, La Befana, who brings the gifts and sweets. It’s thought she followed the wise men but got lost and has been wandering ever since, handing out presents to children at Christmas.
In Venice and Mantova, it’s Santa Lucia who brings the presents, while in some regions it’s Baby Jesus, Gesu' Bambino, who bears the gifts. But nowadays, 90% of Italians also believe in Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Babbo Natale.
Food & Drink - Cibi e Bevande
The essence of Christmas Day in Italy is family, love and food, la famiglia, l'amore e il cibo. Italian festive food varies from region to region, although there are some common dishes. In the Italian Catholic tradition, Christmas Eve is a day of abstinence from meat so a celebratory banquet frequently features fish - some families even prepare as many as 20 different fish dishes! In Rome and southern Italy, il capitone, a dish made with fried eels is a firm favourite. After dinner, Italians head off for midnight mass.
Lunch, il pranzo, on Christmas Day is the most important of all the Christmas feasts and is a lengthy affair.
Delicacies such as crostini with liver pâté or the classic tortellini in chicken stock, brodo are on the table, while lo zampone, a pig's foot filled with spiced mince meat, or il cotechino, a sausage made from pig's intestines containing a similar filling, are particularly popular in northern Italy. Others opt for lamb, l'agnello and accompanying vegetables include mashed potato and lentils, lenticchie. Tortellini, cotechino and lenticchie are often on the menu again on New Year's Eve.
Sweet-toothed Italians indulge in desserts such as nougat, il torrone, and a light Milanese cake filled with candied fruit and raisins, called il panettone. The main, traditional cake is gold bread, il pandoro, which is very similar but without the candied fruit or raisins. A gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds, il panforte, is also popular.
In fact, most Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds as, according to peasant folklore, eating nuts aids the fertility of the earth and people, increasing flocks and family.
Quirky Customs - Abitudine Curiose
Many small towns feature a Nativity scene with actors wandering around small streets, stables and squares interpreting ancient trades such as saddlers and knife-cutters.
Pipers, zampognari, perform traditional Christmas songs on bagpipes, flutes and oboes. These travelling musicians come down from the mountains in the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria and typically wear bright red jackets and broad-brimmed hats with red tassels. In Rome, the pipers play at the Christmas market in the historic Piazza Navona, on the Spanish Steps and at the entrance to St. Peter's Square. Figures of the zampognari often feature in nativity scenes.
How to Celebrate an Italian Christmas Instructions
- Christmas Gifts
- Decorative Stationery
- Nativity Scenes
Tips & Warnings
- Although there are typically no elaborate holiday decorations in Italy, you can expect to see the words "Buon Natale" displayed in shop windows, wishing people a good Christmas.
- Some families in Italy have a Christmas tree, decorated as it would be in America.
- Children in some areas of Italy believe that Jesus Christ delivers presents.
- Italy is a country with many ethnic and cultural influences, so Christmas traditions are diverse and cannot be generalized. The preceding steps represent a few local traditions that may or may not be appropriate for your personal celebration of Christmas.
WEBSITES ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN ITALY